A Few Thoughts on Selma (Part 2)

Last week, Walter Strickland gave his thoughts on the movie “Selma” and especially the historical and cultural impact of Christianity in the civil rights movement. This week, Nathan Finn gives his take, part 2 in our reflections on the movie.  

From the moment I watched the first trailer for “Selma,” I knew this was a movie I wanted to see as soon as possible. To have the opportunity to watch it with my colleague Walter Strickland and some other friends from Southeastern Seminary was a rare treat. We watched the movie together and then enjoyed dialoging about it over coffee afterwards. (To put aside this particular movie for a moment, I’d encourage readers to watch a good movie with a group of friends and then discuss the film’s implications from the perspective of a Christian worldview.)

I admit up front that I did not come to “Selma” as a casual moviegoer. First of all, I am a Gen-X American who was raised on “this side” of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. I was taught in school that Martin Luther King Jr. and his colleagues were right and that their vision for our nation was a good one. However, that does not mean I was “post-racial” or “colorblind” in my views. In recent years, God has increasingly shown me many ways that I have personally benefitted from structural racism and (often implicitly) embraced ethnocentric assumptions. I am a white southerner, and my world is still shaped by racial realities.

I am also a trained historian and an elder of an urban church. As a historian with expertise in twentieth-century American Christianity, I have read widely about the Civil Rights Movement; it is, in fact, a favorite topic of study. In my church, my fellow pastors and I regularly wrestle with how our predominantly white, educated, and affluent congregation can better reflect the diversity of God’s kingdom—and of our neighbors. This is especially important because the neighborhood in which we gather is predominantly African-American, less educated, and less affluent, though gentrification trends are gradually altering the demographics.

History Coming Alive

I really appreciated how “Selma” brought history to life. Yes, I know that some folks are exercised that the movie misrepresented Lyndon Johnson’s views on the March on Selma and the Voter Rights Act, ignored Malcolm X’s conversion to Islam, and made progressive white clergymen sound like evangelicals. I’m not really bothered by these historical errors. Movies—even those rooted in past events—are primarily works of art, as director Ava Duvernay has rightly pointed out in interviews. I expect inaccuracies in any historical movie, and in this case, they did not blunt the impact of the film for me.

Like probably many readers, I have watched lots of archival footage of Martin Luther King’s speeches. I have read many of his writings. I have watched numerous documentaries, including the award-winning PBS documentary “Eye on the Prize” (highly recommended). But none of that was quite like watching “Selma.” In a very real sense, I felt the impact of structural segregation, individual racism, civil disobedience, and faith-inspired activism in a way I never have before because of the power of the medium of film and the high quality of the product itself. The cast was outstanding, especially David Oyelowo and Carmen Ejogo, who play Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King, respectively.

As a historian, I appreciate the sympathetic, but not hagiographical portrayal of King. “Selma” depicts King as a man driven by faith, but struggling with personal doubts. He is a man whose life was saturated with the biblical worldview, but was also marred by moral failure. In both of these respects, he was not unlike many biblical figures such as Moses, Abraham, David, and Paul. Furthermore, the movie helpfully shows that King was not a solitary prophet; others surrounded him and played crucial, if lesser-known roles in the movement. Coretta King, Ralph David Abernathy, and especially John Lewis receive well-deserved attention in this movie.

I also appreciate that the movie does not depict a uniform Civil Rights Movement. As Walter pointed out in his earlier review, there was tension and competition between groups like King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and other organizations not mentioned in the film. The Civil Rights Movement further fractured in the years following the March on Selma and especially King’s murder three years later, and not all of the fractures were as influenced by Christianity as the SCLC was during King’s lifetime.

This White Man’s Burden

Few films have moved me emotionally as much as “Selma.” The fact that I watched the movie in a theater that was predominantly filled with African-Americans moviegoers contributed to my emotions. They laughed during lighter moments. They wept when Jimmy Lee Jackson was murdered and when marchers were beaten unconscious by state troopers. They “talked back” to the movie. And they applauded when it was all over. I fought off tears throughout the whole film—and lost that particular battle several times.

I think white southern evangelicals should watch “Selma” for the same reasons I think they should watch “The Help,” another relatively recent movie that focuses on the theme of race in the mid-20th-century South: the struggle for racial equality is as much a part of our history as it is that of our African-American friends. Of course, society in general was segregated because of white supremacist assumptions. But we need to remember that white believers were complicit in that structural racism—even if implicitly. Too many of us have continued to embrace a thin view of the gospel that is blind to some of the ways that our black friends continue to struggle with racial equality. It’s easy to argue for a colorblind society when most of the blinders are painted white.

When we watch a movie like “Selma,” it reminds us why so many of our black neighbors respond the way they do to the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner. It reminds us why so many of them are pro-life and pro-traditional marriage and voted joyfully for Barack Obama. It reminds us why phrases like “reverse racism” and “Welfare Queen” are so profoundly offensive and why affirmative action is so appreciated. It reminds us why they think Fox News is anti-Christian propaganda. Neighbor-love demands that we hear people’s hearts, try to understand them, and meet them where they are—even when we may never reach total agreement on all of the issues that separate us.

To be crystal clear, the gospel is most definitely the solution to racial strife in America. But let’s not kid ourselves, my fellow white evangelicals. If we appeal piously to the gospel without committing ourselves to the hard work of authentic cross-cultural friendships and open dialogs, policy debates, social justice ministries, intentional outreach, and repentance, prayer and service to those in need, then our gospel is a slogan that deflects rather than a truth that transforms. There is no gospel when there is no change. “Selma” reminds me of how far we’ve come, and how far we still need to go—how far I still need to go.

I am thankful for the life and witness of Martin Luther King Jr. and those with whom he partnered, both famous and unknown. And I am thankful that “Selma” is in theaters at this particular moment in our nation’s history. Please, go and watch this movie and then wrestle with all the emotions it evokes—it will be good for your soul.

 

A Few Thoughts on “Selma” (Part 1)

Recently, several SEBTS faculty together watched the new movie “Selma.” We asked Walter Strickland, Special Advisor to the President for Diversity and Instructor of Theology, and Nathan Finn, Associate Professor of Historical Theology and Baptist Studies, to provide their shared yet unique perspectives. In this first post, Walter gives his thoughts. Come back next week for Nathan’s thoughts. 

My nerves had already gotten the best of me before arriving at the box office. As I responded “Selma” to the question, “What movie would you like to see tonight?” my anxieties were piled high as I anticipated experiencing the struggle that affords me the opportunity to write this very review. In addition, as a Christ-follower, I wondered how Hollywood film writers would portray the role of Christianity in such an important historical epoch. As an African American, I feared the exaggerated dramatization of black stereotypes. As an American, I hoped the Selma narrative would be carefully placed into the larger story of the 1960’s. With every passing scene I was able to let my guard down and develop a new respect for the ongoing journey toward civil rights.

Selma is a reliable and compelling account of a three month vignette of the larger civil rights movement. Since the basic framework of the historical account is depicted, I am not particularly interested in mulling over the amount of artistic license taken in the dialogues with Dr. King and President Lyndon B. Johnson, and between Coretta Scott King and Malcolm X, although it would be a fruitful study. My purpose is to draw our collective attention to the influence of the Christian faith in the Selma story, the “foot soldiers” of the movement, and the tensions between black civil rights organizations.

Christianity and the Movement

Selma wonderfully depicts the significance of the Christian faith among the participants of the movement. Secular historians and conservative Christians alike have a tendency to strip MLK and his followers of their Christian motivations and relegate them to being merely political figures. On the one hand, non-Christian historians tend to uphold King’s phenomenal humanitarian efforts as a sterling example of the power of the human spirit. On the other hand, conservative Christians discount the doctrinal fidelity of King’s faith because of its social and political orientation.

King once stated, “[In] the quiet recesses of my heart, I am fundamentally a clergyman, a Baptist preacher. This is my being and my heritage for I am also the son of a Baptist preacher, the grandson of a Baptist preacher and the great-grandson of a Baptist preacher.”[1] Selma masterfully captures King as a powerful orator whose powerful speeches were laced with biblical imagery and accented with a sermonic flair. King’s pastoral concern was exposed in an intimate encounter with Jimmy Lee Jackson’s grandfather as he reassured him that God grieved first when his grandson was murdered. In a vulnerable moment, King himself was shepherded by a dear friend, Ralph Abernathy, in a Selma jail cell.

The film demonstrated that King’s commitment to nonviolent methods was not a pragmatic application of a theory, but a commitment rooted in Christian love. Elsewhere, King declared, “Agape [love] is understanding, creative, redemptive good will for all men. Biblical theologians would say it is the love of God working in the minds of men. It is an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return. And when you come to love on this level you begin to love men not because they are likable, not because they do things that attract us, but because God loves them and here we love the person who does the evil deed while hating the deed that the person does.”[2]

The Foot Soldiers

Selma subtly, yet powerfully, captured the oft-unsung heroes of the civil rights movement, the foot soldiers. Foot soldiers were the students, homemakers, janitors and construction workers who faithfully marched and sat-in at the call of the celebrated leaders like MLK and Ralph Abernathy. Without the nameless masses that fought for justice, there would have been nobody for MLK to lead to the Edmund Pettus Bridge, and no large demonstrations of solidarity – including the march from Selma to Montgomery.

Selma began to give us a window into the untold number of personal sacrifices made for the sake of racial justice by common everyday folk. This is captured in Annie Lee Cooper’s tireless pursuit of the ballot box before the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) came to town, and the stream of tears cried by Jimmy Lee Jackson’s mother on a lonely porch after the crowds dispersed. The bodily injuries sustained by the marchers on Bloody Sunday and the death clergy who heeded Dr. King’s clarion call to converge on Selma. My own grandparents sacrificed deeply on a black teacher’s salary to make the trip from Chicago to Washington to March with Dr. King 1963.

The burden of the foot soldier is seen especially in Coretta Scott King. Although she admits in the film that she wishes to do more, the reality is that every area of her life, like so many others, was affected by the movement. Large portions of her married life from 1955 to 1968 were lived at a distance, she lived under the constant threat of violence to her family and the lingering cloud of death haunted her daily. The film made clear that the reality of oppression was a grueling act that never came to an end. It was their lives.

Division in the Ranks

Lastly, Selma also captured the reality that the black community did not unanimously accept MLK’s methods of nonviolence. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) began in 1960 as a student segment of the nonviolent movement under the encouragement and oversight of the SCLC. Whereas the SCLC was committed to nonviolence because of its theological convictions, it seems that SNCC espoused nonviolence because it was a proven political tactic. SNCC began to lose faith in nonviolent methods as they sustained more bruises, broken bones, attended a seemingly unending string memorial services and alternative voices like the more radical Malcolm X came onto the national scene.

By 1965, the year of the Selma campaign, SNCC was only a year away from appointing Black Power proponent Stokley Carmichael as chairman. Although SNCC was the only dissenting group depicted in Selma, other groups like the Congress on Racial Equality and the Nation of Islam grew weary of Dr. King’s belief in American ideals and his stalwart faith in the American people to do what is right.

In summary, Selma offers hope as we continue in the marathon for racial equality. The resources of the Christian faith are as available to us now as they were to those being attacked by dogs on Bloody Sunday. The film allows us to see how far we’ve come since 1965 and although progress may seem slow at times it is possible. Lastly, I’m encouraged by brave citizens “fighting” for their ideals. I walked into the theater nervous and I left nervous because like those in Selma, I need to be ready to stand for what I believe when the time comes, at great costs to myself and my family.

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[1] Martin Luther King, Jr., The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr. Vol. 1. ed. Clayborne Carson, 1.

[2] Martin Luther King, Jr., “The Power of Nonviolence” in A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., 13.